It is just a basketball game. Well, it is a bit more than that. It is the NCAA Tournament, the Big Dance. The goal of every college team in the country. It is March Madness, a name more appropriate than non-basketball fans can ever imagine.
Sports fans all over the country fill out their brackets. Some do it for the love of the game. Some do it as a form of gambling, a modern game of chance. Yet others have no idea how to fill out a bracket, must less know how to follow the fast-moving tournament that is the cash cow of the NCAA.
I follow the Auburn Tigers basketball team, along with many other sports. I did not just recently jump on the bandwagon. I have followed the Tigers when there was not much to cheer about. You will not find me on a Facebook site publicly bashing a teenager’s poor play after an intense game. You will not hear me second guessing the coaches.
College sports gives me an opportunity to follow a university that I attended and that I continue to love. Not because of their sports, but because of the way Auburn impacted and influenced my life. I am as competitive as any other college alum, but I do not have to win at any cost.
I also pull for the Georgia Bulldogs because my brother played football there and my sister chose to go to school in Athens. I pull for Alabama because my nephew currently plays for their golf team. I favor Florida State because I have a son-in-law that was a Seminole. I even follow Indiana because one of my daughters attended graduate school in Burlington. My other daughter attended Washington & Lee, where I loved watching Division III athletes play with intensity for no other reason other than their personal love of the game.
But my wife and I are Auburn fans, and love following their teams no matter where that journey may take us. This past weekend, it took us to Greenville, South Carolina, a town we have not visited in several decades. Even then, we were just passing through.
Outside of our unexpected second-round loss to the University of Miami, our biggest surprise was the city of Greenville. It is hard to describe what an incredible job that city has done in developing the downtown of this mid-sized city. I had no expectation of where we were headed, but that does not explain just how blown away I was by this city.
Communities often talk about revitalizing their inner city. There are often endless master plans. Things bog down and drag out. Private funding and public funding are occasionally at odds. I have some experience in this area and understand the challenges of making an old downtown become new and vibrant.
However, for any city that ever had a dream of revitalizing an old downtown, they should visit Greenville. Hotels, restaurants, interesting shops located in historical buildings; they had it all. Rooftop bars overlooked the streets full of people enjoying the lively atmosphere.
Dramatic architecture intertwined modern buildings with thoughtful restorations of old classic structures. Wide streets with sidewalks wide enough to accommodate street seating for restaurants were lined with beautiful mature trees.
Throw in an incredible 22-mile trail along the Reedy River that winds through small and large parks and you have an urban paradise. The fact there is a beautiful waterfall just a couple of blocks away from the center of town is just icing on the cake.
Mary Lou and I journey with our teams because we want to give them our support. But we also love traveling to locations that we would otherwise never have a reason to visit. We are often surrounded by like-minded friends, following a team we all support. That is a good atmosphere, no matter where you are.
But occasionally, you land in a place that so exceeds your expectations that you know you want to come back. Not necessarily with your team, but just to visit. Greenville, South Carolina is such a place. We will return.
Despite a disappointing loss in the NCAA tournament, we found ourselves leaving with a smile. We enjoyed ourselves more than we ever expected. Thanks, Greenville, for being such good hosts, and congratulations on what you have done to make your small city a worthy destination.
For this Auburn fan, your city was the silver lining of our visit.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org